A RECENT post on the excellent Facebook page Helensburgh Memories raised the slightly macabre spectre of coffin roads in Helensburgh and district.

I had not heard of coffin roads until Callum McKay posted a piece about the Stoneymollan coffin road from Balloch to Cardross, which is part of both the Three Lochs Way and the John Muir Way.

He referred to St Matthew’s Chapel at Cardross, but it is more normally spelt St Mahew. The name Mahew is a form of Mochta, and there are several saints of that name in the old records of the Celtic Church.

Callum wrote: “This is an old coffin road that people would use to carry their dead to be buried in the consecrated ground at St Mathew’s Chapel in the clachan of Kirkton, near Cardross.

“In medieval times only certain churches had burial rights and these churches were often few and far between.

“Many rural settlements were remote from a church and so people were often faced with a long trek to the nearest cemetery. The coffin had to be shouldered and carried the whole way.

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“In the 19th century it was known as the Cross Stone Road as there was a stone cross located at the high point of the path, though only the base now exists.

“The coffin would have been placed on this stone to give the coffin bearers a rest before the descent to the burial ground of St Mathew’s Chapel.”

A search for more information about coffin roads led me to an article by Glasgow-based walker and historian Vivien Martin about the Stoneymollan road for iScot magazine in June 2018, and she pointed out that coffin roads were not ‘roads’ but were actually rather narrow tracks or paths.

“Over time, numerous eerie superstitions became attached to these old tracks,” she said.

“The coffin must not touch the ground or the deceased’s spirit would return to haunt the living; the corpse’s feet must face away from their house or they could return to haunt their former home.

“The coffin bearers must not step off the path on to neighbouring farmland or the crops would be blighted; spirits liked to travel in straight lines, so the paths often meandered; spirits could not cross running water, so the paths crossed burns.

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“You could lose a following spirit at a crossroad, so the route would have a crossroad!”

I asked local historian and Helensburgh Heritage Trust director Alistair McIntyre if there were any other local coffin roads.

He said: “I can think of two other local routes over which coffins, or at least corpses, would have been carried.

“Prior to the formation of Arrochar parish in the mid 17th century, and the later provision of a church there, the MacFarlanes of Arrochar regarded Luss Church as ‘their’ church, and a number of clan chiefs are interred in the churchyard there.

“The usual route taken by the MacFarlanes to get to Luss was by way of the String Road, an ancient track from Arrochar, leading by way of a high-level hill pass to Invergroin, about halfway through Glen Douglas.

“From there, the route lay by another hill track close to Doune Farm, into upper Glen Luss.

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“When the clansmen journeyed to Luss Church, they left their weapons at a place called Cnoc an Airm, close to the former Luss Schoolhouse, before proceeding to the church itself.

“Also, on page 162 of W.C. Maughan’s ‘Rosneath P474035

ast and Present’, the author refers to the ‘ancient custom’ of taking local dead from Kilcreggan to Rosneath churchyard by a time-honoured route.

“Maughan said that the track was taken from the landing-place at Portkil by an oblique route over the shoulder of the high ground above the old mill near the Free Church to Rosneath churchyard.”

Alistair added that he had never heard of either of these routes being referred to as a coffin road, although that may have been their purpose.

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Ploughing match had valuable prize

A RECENT Eye on Millig article on poetry about Cardross brought back a memory of an ebay sale spotted by Helensburgh Heritage Trust chairman Robert Ryan.

The article stated that an agricultural society was an early village institution, and under its auspices, an annual ploughing match was held and keenly anticipated. The venue rotated each year among the different farms.

The poem, called “The Cardross Ploughing Match”, begins:

“Last Friday morn the Cardross lads they met to try their hand,

Down in a fine field of Craigend, in turning ow’r the land.

Fourteen ploughs came on the ground - their harness bright did shine -

The men and horses they were fresh, and started in good time.

Willie Traquair o’ Cairniedrouth made twa fine rigs they say,

And carried aff the foremost prize frae Cardross lads that day,

A smart wee lad is James Traquair, his wark he made it tell,

And carried aff the second prize - the Cairney lads did well...”

Various other farms and personalities are mentioned, and the poem concludes:

“Here’s tae the Cairneys and the Glens, the boys o’ Kilmahew,

And a’ the ither Cardross lads, lang may they haud the plough.”

Robert recalled seeing a listing on ebay a few years ago of an immaculate trophy from the ploughing match, which ultimately fetched over £700.

Helensburgh Advertiser: The Cardross plough medalThe Cardross plough medal

The accompanying information referred to the Cardross Ploughing Association, affiliated with the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland and founded in 1784 to promote the regeneration of rural Scotland, as well as the preservation of its poetry, language and music.

The item was a Sterling Medal Victorian Watch Fob, described as a stunning example of the workmanship coming out of the United Kingdom during the mid-19th century.

The details included: “The medal is beautifully done with a hand engraved image of Scotsman ploughing a team of horses. Inscribed SPEED THE PLOUGH; reverse inscribed: “CARDROSS PLOUGHING ASSOCIATION 1854.

“Gained TWO SUCCESSIVE YEARS By JOHN KING. Medal is beautifully encircled with floral wreath!”

I wonder who bought it, if the purchaser had any local connection, and what the final purchase price was.

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Email your suggestions for historical Helensburgh and Lomond topics that could be covered in future Eye on Millig articles to milligeye@btinternet.com.